In due course, I’ll post something that I’ve had the chance to ponder over more, but here are some snap thoughts on today’s bloody brawls in Moscow, as the pre-inauguration ‘March of Millions’ degenerated into violent clashes between police and protesters. This is certainly the most heavy-handed action we’ve seen by the police in Moscow for some time, but likewise has seen the most serious violence by protesters (see this video, for example), with at least 15 OMON riot police already reported wounded, for example, and molotov cocktails being used.
First of all, this is bad news for the protesters. Not just because reportedly at least 400 — and rising — have been arrested, and many others battered, bruised and bloodied. It also suggests that the Kremlin may have decided that it is time to take a tougher line with them and that its forces are eminently willing and capable of handing out grief. We shouldn’t automatically assume that this is the start of some greater crack-down, but news that the Investigations Committee (directly subordinated to the Presidency) is considering criminal proceedings under Article 212 of the Criminal Code (calling for riots) and Article 318 (violence against government officials) — punishable by 2 or 10 years in prison, respectively — does raise the ante. It could be that this time Udaltsov and Navalny face rather more serious treatment.
It’s also bad news because the protesters risk losing not just their moral high ground but also their unity; some will be radicalized by the experience, others intimidated or disillusioned. As CANVAS (the Centre for Applied Non Violent Actions and Strategies) has demonstrated, activists are more likely to succeed if they remain nonviolent. If today’s clashes empower a violent fraction within the activists, even if only a small minority, that actually plays into the hands of the Kremlin. The beating of NTV journalists also suggests a distinct radicalization on the part of some of the activists; this isn’t some happy hippy protest movement any more, alas.
But let’s be clear, it is also bad news for Putin and the Kremlin. In terms of the immediate optics, it is hardly the story they wanted to overshadow Putin’s triumphal inauguration against the backdrop of the pageantry of the Victory Day celebrations (still a celebration with pretty universal appeal), especially given the size of the rally (which will no doubt become the focus of the usual battle of the estimates. 70,000? 50,000? it remains to be seen). More generally, given that the prevailing mode of managing the public depends on cultivating public complacency and elite complicity, then the harder it becomes to present the image of business as usual, the more the regime appears to be having to fight for its dominance and survival, then the more it undermines this aura of inevitable authority.
That’s not to say we are seeing any likelihood of imminent regime collapse or the like. In the sort term, a crack down is likely to have its effect given that this is not Libya, nor Syria. Most people are essentially reconciled to the regime, even if grumbles may be increasing. The elite is pretty united and willing to do what it takes to maintain power (and perhaps one of the most crucial preconditions for regime change is an absence of will on their part), not least for fear of what would happen to them and their often-ill-gotten gains. The security forces appear ready and willing to follow their orders.
Efforts to march against the Kremlin or break through the security cordons were never going to be successful and, let’s be honest, any regime would have resisted them. Now that the whole operation seems to be devolving into a messy cat-and-mouse, hide-and-seek (-and-truncheon) series of skirmishes in the side streets, though (the demo was pretty much dispersed by 9pm Moscow time), I can’t help but wonder if this is a metaphor.
The set-piece and rather civilized nature of the previous protests risk becoming a thing of the past. Will we start seeing more direct violence against police, officials, pro-government figures, etc? Dmitry Peskov, Putin’s official spokesman, said that he felt the police were “too gentle” with the protesters. Will we see that crack-down some have predicted? Overall, I think we’ll see in the immediate future less clarity, more confusion. A fragmenting opposition will include ultra radicals and will encourage a more piecemeal Kremlin response. The Kremlin can crack down, but in the process lose legitimacy and begin to alarm and divide the elites (how many, after all, sympathize with the protesters, or had sons, daughters, nieces and nephews in those crowds?). By the assertion of coercion, the regime might begin to fragment itself, at the very time there is no coherent alternative. We’ll see, but overall today does not seem a day for anyone to feel much optimism.